There was a great atmosphere at the Mamma Mia! opening last night. A real buzz in the audience. No matter what else you may expect from a musical theatre performance, Mamma Mia! is one show that will always be fun, and last night was no exception. The production team of Director Gary Young, Musical Supervisor Stephen Amos, Musical Director Michael Azzopardi and Choreographer Tom Hodgson did a fantastic job in bringing the story to vibrant life.
There was a sense of serendipity with some aspects of the casting of this revival of Mamma Mia! in Melbourne. Natalie O’Donnell, who gave a dynamic, believable performance as Donna Sheridan, played Sophie in the 2001 version. Her vocal performance was both powerful and emotive. And both Alicia Gardner (as Rosie) and Jayde Westaby (as Tanya) who provided a lot of the comedic content, had played Ali in earlier professional versions of the show.
Sarah Morrison fulfilled the role of Donna’s daughter, Sophie Sheridan. She provided an expressive performance through both her singing, and in the way she was able to make the audience care about her search for her father.
The male members of the cast included Ian Stenlake as Sam Carmichael, Phillip Lowe as Harry Bright, Josef Ber as Bill Austin and Stephen Mahy as Sky. Stenlake gave a strong performance as Sam (and as someone who had only previously seen the film, it was a relief to have the role filled by someone with such a beautiful singing voice!).
Overall, the performances were all polished and played well, although I was not a huge fan of how the main comedic roles were somewhat two-dimensional. In particular, the role of Bill seemed to be directed to be very superficial and play only for laughs. Gardiner’s Rosie joined Ber in the over-the-top humour during ‘Take a Chance on Me’ but was allowed to show more depth in other scenes.
The characters of Pepper (played by Sam Hooper) and Eddie (played by Alex Giubson-Giorgio) were also stilted at times, although they earned lots of laughs. And Hooper displayed some amazing gymnastic moves and dance skills during his routine in ‘Does Your Mother Know’ with Westaby, who embodied the worldly socialite Tanya.
The principal cast was completed by Monique Salle as Ali and Jessica Di Costa as Lisa. The ensemble was tight both vocally and in the dance scenes. Hodgson’s choreography was innovative and filled with energy.
The show opened with the stage set with a stone wall complete with twisted olive tree, with the taverna in the background. The lights created the effect of reflections off a body of water across the set and the entire front of the theatre. The set, designed by Linda Bewick, changed when the wall was flown out and we could see the two-storey taverna, with multiple entrances/exits and blue shutters. Much of the action occurred in the courtyard in front of the building, or on the various balconies. Internal scenes occurred in the same space in front of the building, but with the bed, dressing table etc brought onstage by the cast. The set immediately suggested the Mediterranean and allowed for comedic use of the shutters and multiple entrances. The restrictions on the number of sets available in a stage show (compared for example, to a movie) worked to the advantage of the story in this case. I thought the location choices and plotlines that differed from what I was familiar with from the film, made more sense.
The lighting design by Gavan Swift enhanced the location and time of day effectively – such as the water rippling effect already mentioned, and the colours of a beautiful sunrise. They also enhanced the story creatively, rather than realistically, in numbers like ‘Super Trouper’. The atmosphere was further enhanced by the costume design by Suzy Strout. Not many shows give the chance to showcase both realistic costumes for a period, and wilder, more imaginative styles. Mamma Mia! allows both. Strout’s costumes helped flesh out the characters personalities and lifestyle and helped set the scene of the idyllic holiday environment of a Greek island. They also showcased the inner rock goddesses of Donna, Tanya and Rosie (heavily inspired by ABBA of course) and along with the set and lighting, created the mood for the fantasy nightmare in ‘Under Attack’.
Overall, the Sound Design, by Michael Waters, was excellent, but there were a few times when I would have liked to hear the soloists slightly more clearly over the orchestra.
The production team and cast created a great night of entertainment. It can be a stretch to try and build a story with songs from only one group or performer, but Mamma Mia! does it quite effectively. The wide range of ABBA songs used in Mamma Mia! (with such a diversity of content), and a series of small edits to lyrics help make that possible, but it is the performers who have to deliver it convincingly. There were a few potentially uncomfortable moments, when possible father’s and daughter sing what essentially amount to love songs together, but they carried it off through their portrayal of the characters. It was interesting to see the audience react to the humour created simply through the placement of some of the songs, such as ‘Chiquitita’ and ‘Take a Chance on Me’, when the opening notes earned big laughs.
Mamma Mia! had a very successful opening night and was extremely well received by the audience. Gardiner and Westaby were clearly crowd favourites, but the standing ovation started when O’Donnell took her bows. The three ‘encore’ final numbers created a party atmosphere which had everyone standing and clapping along, and the audience definitely left on an emotional high.
Mamma Mia! is now playing at The Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District until the 30th of September.
Photo credit: James Morgan